Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned that the coronavirus pandemic could reach wartime-levels of horror, in terms of both death count and economic fallout, if the United States does not act urgently to ensure universal access to health care, paid leave and unemployment benefits to American families.
In an address from his hometown in Burlington, Vermont, Sanders took aim at the Trump administration for being “largely incompetent” in the face of an international crisis, calling for the country to declare a national emergency. Sanders laid out a plan that emphasized mobilizing the medical community to provide free health care, expanding food safety assistance, housing security, and unemployment benefits, as well as measures to keep businesses afloat — like ensuring access to lines of credit for small business owners.
His message about the coronavirus sounded not unlike some of his most famous campaign speeches, asking Americans to fight for someone they do not know, and emphasizing the most vulnerable communities in the country.
“It will be easy for us to feel like we are all alone ... or that we must only worry about ourselves and think that everyone else should fend for themselves, but in my view that would be a tragic and dangerous mistake,” Sanders said in his address. “If our neighbor or coworker gets sick, we have the potential to become sick. If our neighbor loses his or her job, then our local community suffers and we may lose our jobs. We are in this together.”
Sanders campaign held a roundtable event on the coronavirus outbreak earlier this week in Detroit, Michigan, where doctors and nurses who have supported his campaign made the case for government-run health insurance and called for any forthcoming vaccine developed for the virus be free of charge. Sanders emphasized those policies Thursday, but with more urgency.
“Unfortunately, as I think the American people increasingly understand, our country is at a severe disadvantage compared to every other major country on earth because we do not guarantee health care to all people as a right,” Sanders said.
He added that even as the fight for “Medicare For All” — which would move every American onto government-run insurance — continues, the United States should offer treatment for coronavirus free of cost, now.
Both Sanders and Biden have canceled major campaign events and rallies in light of the coronavirus spread. Biden also addressed the nation Thursday, censuring President Donald Trump for using xenophobic language when addressing the virus and downplaying the severity of its spread.
There were 1,323 documented cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 38 related deaths in the United States as of Thursday afternoon. The United States has lagged nearly every major developed country in testing for the virus. As of Thursday, fewer than 10,000 possible cases had been tested, and there have been countless reports of Americans experiencing symptoms struggling to get tested. By comparison, South Korea has built the capability to run 15,000 diagnostic tests per day. Despite this, Trump has repeatedly said the testing has been going smoothly.
Sanders also called on Congress to take responsibility for mitigating the coronavirus crisis in a bipartisan manner.
Congress has been gridlocked in negotiations. House Democrats intend to vote on a package of bills Thursday that would bolster funding for food security assistance programs, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; guarantee free coronavirus testing; establish a national paid leave program; and allocate additional unemployment benefits for those impacted by the economic upheaval — many of the policies Sanders supported Thursday.
But Republicans have already pushed back on the package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it an “ideological wishlist.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also said he would oppose the package.